Review: Waste, National Theatre

“The stateman’s task is the accommodation of stubborn facts to shifting circumstance and in effect to the practical capacities of the average stupid man. Democracy involves admission of that”

It’s always a bit tough to forge one’s own opinion of something already lauded as a masterpiece, the assumption being if you don’t like it then you’re missing something, but this is the second time I’ve seen a solidly good production of Harley Granville Barker’s Waste and it’s the second time that I just haven’t been blown away by it. Seven years ago saw Samuel West tackle it for the Almeida and now it is Roger Michell’s turn in the Lyttelton as Rufus Norris continues his balancing act of reinvigorating the National Theatre without scaring the regulars off.

But spread over a goodly three hours with a pace that could be described as stately at best and glacial at its worst, it’s hard to see Waste converting any newcomers to the joys of theatre. And even with the quality that emanates from the female-centric first scene – Olivia Williams, Sylvestra Le Touzel, Doreen Mantle and Lucy Robinson (forever in my heart as my first Lady Macbeth) doing fine work – the energy is just singularly lacking even as sex, sleaze and suicide pop up on the menu for this slice of the Edwardian political elite. 

Hildegard Bechtler’s design is partly culpable, its evocation of elegant loucheness looks a treat but spread across the vast swathe of space of the Lyttelton stage it simply dilutes. The chairs of the opening drawing room scene are set so far apart they may as well be in separate rooms, the length of the table in the parliamentary office is just impractical, seemingly that way just to fill the void. It also doesn’t help that the political machinations of the play, set in a hung parliament where a radical Independent MP is persuaded by the Tories to push through a divisive Bill, aren’t the most gripping.

It’s always a pleasure to see Charles Edwards on the stage and as the calculating Henry Trebell, he effectively captures the innate arrogance of the upper classes as his affair with married woman Amy O’Connell, the captivating Williams, leads to an abortive pregnancy that also threatens the life of much more beside. But be it a masterpiece or not (and I can theoretically see why it appeals to some), it just didn’t move me once again, this production just didn’t make me care enough even with excellent work by Le Touzel among the large ensemble, and that seems the biggest waste of all.

Running time: 3 hours (with interval)
Booking until 19th March

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